No Plain Reign
Monarch, mother, royal dish dryer: For Elizabeth, who marks her 50th year on Britain's throne Feb. 6, her various roles—along with those of wife, animal lover and scandal survivor—have long competed for her attention. A 27-year-old mother of two small children when she was crowned—16 months after she ascended the throne in 1952—she is now a 75-year-old granny whose reign has spanned 10 prime ministers and 11 U.S. Presidents. If not quite born to the role (only a love-struck uncle made it possible), she has come to define it. As Winston Churchill put it in 1953, "If they had scoured the globe, they could not have found anyone so suited to the part."
Yet even after a half-century as one of the world's most recognizable women, the private Elizabeth remains elusive. Friends variously portray her as modest, thoughtful and, above all, "utterly controlled—she doesn't give anything away," says Rev. Anthony Harbottle, who served as her chaplain for nearly 30 years. Derided as more demonstrative toward her dogs and horses than toward her children—Charles, 53, Anne, 51, Andrew, 41, and Edward, 37—she has always tended to make work her priority. Says Lacey: "Duty became the crippling weight in normal family development."
That, say critics, led to the marital discord that defined the Windsors in the 1990s. Though she is said to get on well with Anne and Andrew and even dotes on Edward, the pragmatic Queen "struggles to understand" the introspective Charles, says Peter Archer of Britain's Press Association. She also bridles at his relationship with the divorced Camilla Parker Bowles, 54.
Others maintain that Elizabeth's remoteness is overstated. With her children, "there's no starchiness at all," says Maureen Rose, her dressmaker since 1973. She speaks every morning by phone with her 101-year-old mother, Britain's beloved Queen Mum, and remains close to her ailing sister Margaret, 71. Furthermore, "she has a highly developed sense of the ridiculous," says royals author Brian Hoey. When the late French singer Maurice Chevalier once balked at singing risqué songs in front of her, she replied, "I am free, well over 21 and married to a sailor, so get on with it!" On those occasions that Elizabeth entertains at Buckingham Palace, it is the sound of scuffling paws, not blaring trumpets, that heralds her appearance. "When the doors open, in come the corgis, followed by the Queen," says a Palace source. "It works as a tremendous icebreaker."
Most days the Queen and Philip, her husband of 54 years, "are slaves to routine and ritual," former royal butler Paul Burrell told PEOPLE in 1999. (Burrell's trial on charges he stole from the royal family has been postponed until after the Queen's Golden Jubilee celebrations this summer, which will include fireworks, concerts and church services.) The couple have separate bedrooms at Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace, a standard practice among upper-crust Britons. After breakfast of toast and tea, the Queen pores over the "red boxes" of paperwork that she receives daily from the government. Though she has no veto power, she approves all legislation and "considers one of her major achievements the way she has held together" the assorted former colonies that make up the British Commonwealth, says Hoey.
Tea is served at 5 p.m., with scones set aside for the Queen's current crop of corgis—Pharos, Swift, Emma and Linnet (she has owned more than 30 over the years). She sips a Dubonnet-and-gin cocktail before dinner, and afterward she retires to watch TV (horse racing and the British comedy Last of the Summer Wine are favorites) or to work on her jigsaw puzzles (she's fond of outdoor scenes).
During summer visits to Balmoral, the Queen breaks up the routine with daily walks, and at Sandringham during Christmas she helps retrieve birds shot by her husband and friends. Says Margaret Rhodes, a cousin: "She is a country person at heart."
The elder daughter of Albert, Duke of York, and Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, Elizabeth was third in line to the throne behind her uncle David and her father. She and her sister Margaret "had a jolly childhood," says Rhodes. "It was a life of picnics and paddling in streams." That ended in 1936, when David, by then King Edward VIII, abdicated to marry the twice-divorced Wallis Simpson, an American. Elizabeth's father inherited the throne, and when he died of lung cancer 16 years later, she rushed home from a visit to Africa. Says Lady Pamela Hicks, an old friend: "When we landed in England and saw Churchill on the tarmac, there was this sudden realization that this was the end of her private life."
In fact, it had receded a few years earlier in the fanfare of her 1947 marriage to Philip, then 26. A nephew of the deposed king of Greece, the prickly Greek-born prince was viewed with suspicion by the British establishment. "He was not the sort of person who went out of his way to ingratiate himself," says Sir Edward Ford, a former secretary to the Queen. Yet despite Philip's irascibility and embarrassing gaffes—in 1986 he told British students visiting China that if they stayed too long, they might get "slitty eyes"—he and the Queen have maintained a strong bond. When preparing a speech, Elizabeth "often consults Prince Philip, asking him to vet or alter the draft," says Ford. In a rare personal comment during a 1997 address she said of her husband, "He has quite simply been my strength and stay all these years, and I owe him a debt greater than he would ever claim."
Never has she needed more bolstering than in the past 13 years, when fire engulfed Windsor Castle and the divorces of three of her four children—along with scandals surrounding the extramarital affairs of Charles, Diana and Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson—filled newspapers. In 1989, when Anne broke the news to her mother that her marriage to equestrian coach Mark Phillips was ending, "the Queen's immediate reaction was, 'I have to walk the corgis,' " says Hoey. "She shies away from personal problems." The outpouring of grief over Diana's death in 1997—and the royal family's awkward reaction immediately following—forced Elizabeth to reassess her own reserve. But little has changed. Says Archer: "It is not in her makeup to show public remorse or guilt."
Yet there are signs that she has loosened up: She savors the company of her grandchildren—William, 19; Harry, 17; Andrew's daughters Beatrice, 13, and Eugenie, 11; and Anne's children Peter, 24, and Zara, 20—and didn't mind when Zara got her tongue pierced. ("She thought it was a hoot," says Lacey.) But she remains very much the same woman who inherited the throne 50 years ago. "You only have to look back over time to see how much things have changed since 1952," says Harbottle. "But while the world has changed, one can safely say the Queen has not."
Simon Perry and Ellen Tumposky in London
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